BLOOMINGTON, Ind.—While social distancing measures have helped the U.S. ‘flatten the curve,’ they have presented a formidable challenge to vulnerable groups who cannot afford to lose their jobs and quarantine at home. With millions of Americans out of work and unable to pay their utilities—particularly their electric bills— the resulting energy insecurity will have longstanding and negative health effects across the nation unless urgent action is taken, according to a new article in Nature Energy.
The piece, “COVID-19 Assistance Needs to Target Energy Insecurity,” was co-authored by Indiana University O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs Professor Sanya Carley and doctoral student Michelle Graff and was published today (May 1).
The researchers noted that certain socioeconomic demographic groups such as low-income, elderly, and renting households and households of color pay a higher percentage of their income on energy than the average U.S. household.
Many of the jobs lost to the current COVID-19 pandemic are in service and retail, production, food services, health care, construction, and social assistance. Because much of this population lives paycheck to paycheck, a lack of income will make paying rent a financial hurdle, and stocking up on food or paying energy bills may be impossible.
“While the federal and state governments have taken some action to alleviate the inevitable growth of energy insecurity in the U.S., more is needed,” the authors conclude. “Failure by federal, state, and local levels of government to recognize—and thereafter prioritize—energy security in their forthcoming legislative efforts to help U.S. households navigate the COVID-19 pandemic will likely result in more negative health outcomes. For these reasons, we encourage all levels of government to promptly allocate resources to help Americans keep their lights on during the pandemic and without having to face irrecoverable debt as a result.”
With stay-at-home orders in place across the country, energy usage has already increased substantially, and will likely increase even further as warmer months approach.
When citizens are unable to pay their energy bills, they often resort to unsafe and unhealthy behaviors, such as the use of payday lending, utilizing dangerous heating practices like burning trash or using space heaters, and making hard financial decisions about whether to pay utilities or buy necessities like food or medicine.
What can be done? Carley and Graff suggest a number of policy responses, including:
- Increased funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and expanding recipient eligibility from 150 percent of the federal poverty guidance to 200 percent for the 2020-21 program year;
- Taking steps to protect energy insecure citizens, through suspension of disconnection notices and ordering the reconnection of already disconnected households;
- Providing aid to fast-growing sectors of the economy, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency; and
- Higher financial support for the Weatherization Assistance Program to help low-income households increase their energy efficiency.
“The COVID-19 pandemic represents an unprecedented challenge for low-income populations, especially those that are already energy insecure,” Carley said. “Those that will be economically disadvantaged by COVD-19 are the same individuals that face potential or actual energy insecurity, and it is essential to provide rapid relief to these individuals.”
About the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington
The O’Neill School is a world leader in public and environmental affairs and is the largest school of public administration and public policy in the United States. In the 2021 "Best Graduate Public Affairs Programs" by U.S. News & World Report, O’Neill ranks first in the country. Additionally, six of its specialty programs are ranked in the top-five listings, including the number one nonprofit management program.